It took me three days to write about Philando Castile.
Took that long to process the news that yet again, Black American lives would not be deemed worthy of justice; that here in the U.S., our lives can be taken with impunity at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all – for going to the corner store for pop (while Black), a “routine” traffic stop (while Black), being in the wrong place (i.e. America) at the wrong time (i.e. the 21st Century) in the wrong skin.
It took me three days to write about Philando Castile, officer Yanez, and the judgment of “not guilty,” somehow rendered in the face of (warning: graphic footage) videographic evidence live streamed around the world by Castile’s girlfriend during his public murder at the hands of the Saint Anthony Police Department. They are hands that we now know will get to go home and hold their children and love their partner, privileges that Mr. Castile will, of course, never again enjoy.
Three days, y’all.
And by the time I did write, my twitter feed had begun to bleed word of yet another grievous and brutal murder of an innocent Black person by the cops. Word – words, that is – 140 character statements on Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, disabled mother of four who called the cops to report a burglary and was slaughtered in her own home, in front of her children, by the paid public officials she had turned to for help and protection – officials who, by the way, were recorded discussing the woman’s background and acknowledging awareness both of her history of mental health issues and the likelihood of children being present into the house before they began the fatal shooting.
And all this leading up to Juneteenth…
I’ve got to say it.
The paramilitary arm of the state, if it is to continue selling the myth that it is an institution of public servants mandated to “serve and protect,” necessitates serious attention to the need for accountability structures to ensure appropriate hiring, rigorous training in deescalation strategies and nonviolent communication techniques, community/civilian oversight, and regulatory check-ins. In the interest of establishing a true community policing system, I would also argue that the police should be hired from the communities they are intended to serve and sharply demilitarized.
The lie that the police are here to protect us has been exposed. Who, after all, is the us in this formulation? Who is being protected when a pregnant woman at home alone with her children can’t call on the police to help protect her from burglars without risking her life at the hands of those who justify this violence on the basis of public service and protection? Why do White criminals get treated better than innocent Black people by the cops who claim to serve us all?
No more hiding, no more lies. The system has not failed us, it has simply exposed the reality that it was never built to protect us in the first place.
The police should no longer be granted political and legal immunity for the murders they routinely commit, they should not be protected when they prey upon children and (again routinely) target communities of color. Everyone suffers from implicit biases, but in the case of the police who are armed and apparently authorized to commit any violence they deem utile, leaving victims without recourse to legal protections or justice for the (often brutal) murders of their loved ones. And yes, I’m using the word murder intentionally, to draw attention to unlawful, vicious killings we are told in a million ways we are supposed to just forget about as we are encouraged to accept the pat, insufficient and unrepentant justifications.
Hear me: when the police joked about this woman’s mental health history, when they slaughtered her in her own home, after her own call for help, in front of her children, they were not AFRAID FOR THEIR LIVES. They are trained professionals, responding to a typical request for assistance from the community they are (ostensibly) paid “to serve and protect.”
As a black, non-binary, queer femme who has been paying taxes since their teen years, I have to say, I am increasingly unwilling to pay the salaries of the people who would willingly shoot me in my own home, in front of my family, with no compunction about responsibilities, duties, or the requirements of justice. I do not feel safe. I am not protected under these circumstances.
We hear so much about how the police “can’t do their jobs” without this kind of licensed, unregulated impunity, without a sense of freedom to exercise whatever force (which is to say, violence) they deem “necessary,” but necessary for what? Against whom? Who in this system is truly being protected, I ask you? Who do you know that is truly afraid for their lives? And how am I supposed to do my job, knowing that a cop could kill me at any time…no crime committed, no law broken, in total compliance, with my hand up, in my own yard or home, in my own car, in front of my children, my spouse, my neighbors. I ask you again, how am I supposed to do my job (as an academic and a researcher, as a community member, as a family member) while I must fear for my life anywhere and everywhere I go in my own community?
Is the cop who kills me for no reason, and is then back on the streets truly contributing more to my community than my professional research and nonprofit service, my volunteer work, the financial support I provide for my family? Is his value that much greater than mine, simply because the police department doesn’t want to be held accountable, merely so they can continue to function free of oversight?
It is unacceptable; I submit to you: when the legal code does not protect us, we must change it.
When the cops are allowed to ignore the laws that do exist for the purpose of public protection, we must bring all American citizens into compliance with those laws.
The police are not inherently just in their actions – they are people, they have biases, they make mistakes, but they are also paid professionals who are trained for high-stress, potentially volatile situations, and who have been armed by our government with military grade assault weapons making the implementation of lethal violence very easy to enact. Therefore, the tax-based salaries and stated sociopolitical mission of the police require that they accept the responsibility that comes with the position and the armaments with which we have (unwisely) outfitted them.
It is imperative that we refuse to legitimize this unnecessary, unprovoked violence, force and the taking of lives in communities of color as simply the acceptable, collateral damage that we pay for “law and order.” When the laws are written so they don’t apply to the lethal use of paramilitary force against U.S. citizens in full compliance with the law and with the commands of the authorized authorities, they are no longer working in service of either the people, the “justice” (or shall we say, justification) system, or the cause of “order.”
And although we live and labor under a system that does not protect us equally, I reject the notion of a black-and-white America, or an us-versus-them America, or a divided States of America. Instead, I believe that true healing and justice for all lie in the direction of a United States that has room enough for all our voices, languages, cultures, faces and stories.
An America that does not protect all of us, does not protect any of us.